The following is a copy of my article in the JUNE 2015 edition of the Billericay ‘Around Town Magazine’
This month celebrates the 800th Anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta (Latin for ‘The Great Charter’). Although signed by King John, it was proposed by Archbishop Stephen Langton (a champion of human rights) who, supported by church leaders and disgruntled nobles, persuaded the political and military leaders of the day to present Magna Carta to King John at Runneymede for his seal on 15 June 1215. Magna Carta not only safeguarded the rights, privileges and liberties of the clergy and the nobles and placed limits on the power of the crown, it profoundly influenced the structure of political power and justice for many in England – averting a political coup in the process. King John never lived with the full consequences of Magna Carta for, in October of 1216, he died of dysentery at the ripe old age of 50!!
The principles of Magna Carta, especially the central key clauses concerning liberty and justice, have not only stood the test of time, but through the legacy of the British Empire, are enshrined within the constitution of more than one hundred countries bringing greater freedom and the rule of law to a 1.2 billion people. And, as we reflect on the formation of a new Government after the General Election on 7 May 2015, it’s worth recognising that our democratic right to vote was first established by Magna Carta which provided the framework for the first ever directly elected Parliament in 1264.
In the present day, Magna Carta is cited whenever basic freedoms come under threat from overzealous governments, even in the cradle of world democracy itself. You may remember how David Davis MP, stood down from Parliament in order to fight a by-election on the issue of 42-day detention in 2008, with the famous clauses 39 and 40 providing his agenda for doing so. These clauses affirm the primacy of the law and trial by jury: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way … except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” Davis won the argument and, once again, Magna Carta carried the day.
800 years on and, it could be said, Magna Carta’s best days lie ahead. As an idea of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, the principles set out in Magna Carta have driven the continuing protests against despotism around the world. These principles, with the power of social networking and the internet, will no doubt continue to have huge influence wherever freedom is under attack.
Some commentators suggest Magna Carta has been the most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world as well as being one of the most celebrated documents in history. Whilst it seems unlikely that a predominantly secular media will recognise the Magna Carta as an initiative of the Church, it is an amazing achievement of a godly Biblical scholar and his colleagues, requiring great courage, perseverance and persuasive negotiation. It’s also a reminder of the continuing commitment of the church to Christian principles of justice and freedom.
Might our message at this time of commemoration be words from John’s Gospel 8:36: “If the Son shall set you free, you will be free indeed!” Remembering, of course, that Christian freedom is not just about being set free from bondage but set free to live life to the full by the grace of Jesus.
There is an excellent document entitled ‘The Church and the Charter Christianity and the forgotten roots of the Magna Carta written by Thomas Andrew of Theos which can be downloaded here if you wish to read more about the Christian origins of the Magna Carta.